Former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney Jr., has died, his daughter confirmed Monday.
Nikky Finney told The State newspaper that her father passed away Sunday. Ernest Finney was South Carolina’s first African-American state Supreme Court chief justice. The 86 year old retired from the court in 2000.
Finney started his career as an educator and went on to become a lawyer, specializing in civil rights advocacy and defense.
He represented the Friendship Nine in early 1961 when the students spent a month in a Rock Hill jail for protesting lunch-counter segregation.
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Many participated in the sit-ins, but nine from Friendship College refused an offer of bail from the NAACP, saying they did not want to contribute to the coffers of segregationists. Henceforth, “Jail, No Bail” became a rallying cry of the civil rights movement.
Finney also opened a law office in Sumter, the seat of South Carolina’s White Citizens Council, and quickly indicated his willingness to collaborate with others.
Throughout his career. Finney endured overt racism, trusting the legal system ultimately would work and that the courts were an appropriate place to take the fight for enfranchisement.
In 1972, Finney was elected to the S.C. House, serving on its Judiciary Committee. Four years later, he was elected the state’s first black Circuit Court judge. In 1985, he was elected the first black Supreme Court justice. Jonathan Jasper Wright was the first African-American to serve on the court, but he did not become chief justice.
Finney became chief justice in 1994.
When Finney retired in 2000, then-senior associate Justice Jean Toal was elected South Carolina’s first female chief justice.
“In addition to being a great judge and lawyer, (Finney) was the most decent man I’ve ever known,” said Toal in a phone interview on Monday. “He set the standard by which we are all judged.”
Staff writers Bristow Marchant and Tim Flach contributed to this story.